Thursday, August 12, 2010

Woah. We're in India.

I have always wanted to go to India.

As a child, I was immersed in Indian folk tales and mesmerized by Indian fashions. I read the Ramayana three times over the course of my public school education in Seattle; in the fourth grade, I played Ravanna’s evil sister, Surpanakha, who tries to seduce Rama and steal him away from Sita.

(Other favorite stage roles from that era include the Native American wicked witch Swayook, the vain and imperious goddess Hera, and the baby-stealing, hard-bitten Imogene from The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. By twelve years old I’d discovered that playing the villain is always more fun than playing the ingĂ©nue, even if they do get to wear a prettier costume. At thirteen I got cast as a girl who kept accidentally beating up boys; we did eleven shows a week, which meant I only had to go to school on Mondays, and the money I made eventually went to paying for the first show I directed and produced my senior year of high school.)

(But I digress.)

In the neighborhood I grew up in there was an older couple who lived a few doors down from us who went to India to do Peace Corps. When they came back they told us stories of their time there, including time spent working with Mother Teresa. I was in awe. And when I said, rather wistfully, “I want to go to India,” the woman punctured my wist with a very matter-of-fact, “Well then you will. If you really want to, then you will.”

And now, here I am.

But it’s a funny thing. I have many friends who have come here. They saved up and planned for this trip for months, sometimes years. One followed her guru here. All of them came as backpackers, staying in humble accommodations, traveling like locals, making their money streeeeetch over the months they had to spend here.

Me? I’m in a funny place. Because I didn’t spend months/years planning and scheming. It fell into my lap. I looked at it and said, Really? But I'm tired. Despite this, it was still in my lap. So I said, Ok. Let's go.

Now, we’ve been running hard this year. In 2010 we’ve been in our Brooklyn home a total of maybe 21 days. That’s it. The rest of the year we’ve been in DC, Tallahassee, Seattle, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, Sydney, Hong Kong, China, Ireland, New Jersey, Cape Cod…everywhere but home. So we were looking forward to a very quiet August. Lots of rest. Lots of not going anywhere.

But then in May we got an email from the US Consulate’s office asking us if we wanted to go to India in August. Five cities, with one workshop and one performance in each, and the monologue of our choice. How could we say no?

We couldn’t, so we said yes, and then we kept running, busy with all our other engagements up until the moment we left, pausing only to pick up a guide book which we didn’t even have time to open until we were on the 24-hour plane over.

And now, here we are.

A well-traveled friend of mine wrote me today with these words:

“And India, man.... It took me two solid weeks before I could even begin to relax just a little bit. But when you do, it's all the sweeter for realizing that in so doing you have accomplished something. You realize that you're still alive. And what's more, that you were ALWAYS okay. And that you're stronger than you'd given yourself credit for being. You're going to be a-okay!”

That’s how everyone I know who’s come here talks about India. As the most intense experience of their lives ever. Like love, like war.

I keep telling myself that our experience isn’t going to be that way. Thanks to coming through the State Department, we’ll be staying at fancy hotels. We’ll have drivers to whisk us from the airport to the classroom to the theater. We’ve given ourselves advance permission to relax, to take it easy, to not cram every moment we’re not working with essential India moments. We are willing to exchange stories like

sitting on the edge of an open train whisking through the countryside while drinking chai out of a clay cup


sitting on the edge of a rooftop pool while happily surrounded by wifi.

But I have to report that even as I write this from our HOTEL FORTRESS, I am already overwhelmed. This place has armed guards out front, mirrors to check the undercarriage of cars for bombs, $25 lunch buffets...

Feeling like a caged bird, on the first day I tried to go for a walk.

Took me about twenty minutes just to cross the street. Traffic is intense! Everyone beeping! No crosswalks! I made it across to the meridian, hung out there with a leper before I worked up the nerve to cross the rest of the way. Very Frogger-like.

Then yesterday we went to the theater for a site visit and found out that everything that could be misunderstood about our tech has been. I mean, we decided to make this thing as easy as possible: it's basically lights up, lights down. And yet! Everything becomes complicated! Meetings that were scheduled to take 30 minutes take two hours! During which time...nothing was actually accomplished!

But today is the real test, because tonight’s our first show. And I'm just so curious as to how the audience will receive Mike. They don't have any tradition of this kind of performance; not even stand-up. The interview I heard Mike give over the phone this morning was hilarious in how clearly the interviewer had no idea who Mike was or what he did.

MIKE: No, there's no music. (pause) No, I don't sing. (pause) No, no, no poetry. I just sit there and tell a story. (pause) 58? No, no, I'm 37. (pause) Self-taught. (pause) No, I will not recite a line for you. That's not how it works. (pause) Well, just because it's not written doesn't mean it's not composed. (pause) (pause) (pause) Well if you don't understand why Indians would care about what's happening in China--when you're both competing for the same markets, when corporations are moving their operations from China to India because they want to use your people in the same way they've used the Chinese--if you can't see why that would pertain to you, then you're just blind or have no imagination. (pause) Yes, thank you for your time. Goodbye.

I’ll keep you posted.


Geoff said...

My favorite phrase in India "Yes, it is soon becoming", um does that mean it's coming or will come or what?

People in India tend to politely lie, it's not with maliciousness it's just they don't want to tell you what you don't want to hear, so what they say may not always be true, and yet sometimes something that won't be true becomes true. Alas "This is India"

Eleanor said...

this is going to be a wild ride. SO looking forward to the updates!

vishesh said...

Loved the performance today-loved it enough to google and land up here just to say I loved it ;)

As for crossing just walk across..just put your hands out..the bikes will go around you..the cars will stop..but avoid crossing in front of buses..

SM said...

This post is hysterical. Love Mike's phone call and the lines about exchanging the clay cup of chai for the pool & wifi!

JM said...

Thanks for stopping by, Vishesh, and thank you for the tip! We'll try it in Hyderabad.

Geoff, there's a section of the show Mike performed in Chennai that I need to send to you...

Kristen Palmer said...

wow. fantastic. 'woah' indeed.

JM said...

Update! Your advice worked, Vishesh. It took some courage to just *walk*, but once out there, the vehicles somehow accommodated us without any of us actually stopping. Amazing!